Secularization is the reduction of the influence of religion in the life of an individual, institution, or society.
Because secularization is the reduction of the influence of "religion," it is important to first define "religion." Two different definitions are commonly used for the word "religion," complicating our situation:
- Functional definition: Beliefs and behaviors relating to fundamental issues of human life, including the origin and nature of the universe and humanity, the origin and nature of morality, the purpose or lack of purpose in life, and the fate of an individual at death.
- Formal definition: Beliefs and behaviors relating to God and other supernatural beings, based on the words of prophets and holy texts, but not based on science.
If we apply the Formal definition, then indeed many people are not religious and thus secular. These are the people who say they "do not believe in God" or "do not believe in the Bible." They typically like to consider themselves "scientific" rather than "superstitious."
But if we apply the Functional definition, things look a bit different. Because everyone has opinions about the "fundamental questions of life." An atheist believes there is no God, and when a human dies he totally ceases to exist. This addresses the "fundamental issues of life," and is thus religious. Even an agnostic believes that the answers to these questions are unknown or unknowable, which is certainly an opinion both about the religious ideas available to him as well as an opinion that those issues are not important enough to merit further investigation.
Thus our understanding of "secularization" depends on our definition of "religion." If we apply the formal definition, then some people are religious and some people are not. But if we apply the functional definition, then everyone is religious, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or Agnostic.
- Under the Formal definition of religion, secularization is the shift from religious to non-religious attitudes;
- Under the Functional definition of religion, secularization is the shift from theistic religions like Christianity to non-theistic religions like atheism.
Where Secularization Has Occurred
Since the word "secularization" is generally understood with reference to the Formal definition of religion, meaning that secularization is the rejection of religious belief in favor of atheism or agnosticism, the rest of the article will use that definition. This leaves us with our second question: where is secularization happening?
- Geographically, secularization has been confined to Europe, America, East Asia, and Australia. Christianity has been growing by leaps and bounds in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Islam is growing steadily in the Sahara and Middle East, and Hinduism and Buddhism remain dominant in South Asia.
- Within the secularizing countries, secularization has also been limited to particular groups. Academia is highly secularized. According to Nature, over 90% of America's most esteemed scientists either doubt or disbelieve in the existence of God. Individuals in academia sometimes receive official reprimand and punishment for publishing ideas which even vaguely support religion, even when the articles are written by PhDs writing in their area of expertise. Students are discriminated against when applying to college if it is determined that they came from a high school that taught creationism.
- Within the population at large, however, secularization has not taken hold. According to a 2004 CBS poll, 55% of Americans believe God created Man in his present form, 27% of Americans believe that evolution occurred with God's guidance, and only 13% believe that evolution occurred without God's guidance. 94% of Americans believe in God. 5% are weak atheists and 1% are strong atheists. It is important to recognize, however, that these believers in "God" hold a wide variety of views about what, exactly, God is. New Age, Pantheism, Islam, Judaism, and Neopaganism among many others all believe in "God" or gods but their beliefs about that God or gods are very different.
The Gap Between Academia and the Public
There are two dominant explanations for the much greater secularization of academia than the public:
- Secular individuals typically argue that secularism is a result of increased education, bringing knowledge of science and the world that shows religious belief to be false;
- Religious individuals typically argue that the gap is caused by the philosophy which has attained power in academia and fundamentalist secularists who teach their philosophy under the guise of "education," while systematically excluding theists from discourse as a result of prejudice. Thus a self-selecting mechanism has been constructed whereby secularists in academic power spread their philosophy to students, and students who are willing to accept that philosophy are attracted to academia, while theists (the vast majority of people) are attracted to other walks of life which they deem to be more useful or lucrative, and in which they will be less subject to discrimination for their beliefs.
What secularism means about the present and future
- Secularists generally view secularization as the natural evolutionary "next step" in human thought. According to this view, religion has outlived its usefulness, been shown to be false, and is ripe to be replaced by secularism;
- Some theists see secularization as part of a dialectic in which the thesis of old and dogmatic forms of religion were challenged by antithesis of secularism, and the synthesis of a new and more sophisticated form of Christianity is ready to emerge from the ashes of the old;
- Other theists see secularization as analogous to Judaism's exile in Babylon. They believe that by the 17th century the Church had become badly corrupted, and that the secularists have been given control in order to chasten Christians and refine Christian belief and practice into a brighter future;
- Other theists see secularization as symptomatic of Western civilization's decay toward Anti-Christ and the end-times.
- Secularization by Catholic Encyclopedia
- Blasi, A.J. Definition of Religion. Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Science. Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary.